Since moving to Chicago, almost a year has passed before I was finally treated to a show at the theater which bears the city’s name. It was worth the wait, as I got to see Steely Dan tear up the beautiful Chicago Theater. The Dan put a second stop in Chicago on their Think Fast, Steely Dan Tour after the first one sold out in days and I’m certainly glad they did.
A good friend treated me to the ticket for taking care of what is most dear to him: a one year old Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lola. It was payment well beyond the services rendered. The enigmatic Donald Fagen was is full form — rocking the always fashionable suit, sunglasses, sneakers and calling the crowd “gang”. Walter Becker had his moments too; he broke into a narrative during “Hey Nineteen” to introduce “the Cuuueeervooo Gold” that was pretty priceless. Overall the show was tremendous and the opener, Deep Blue Organ Trio, set the standard early.
Deep Blue Organ Trio is a Chicago based jazz band centered around organist Chris Foreman. He wields what may be the greatest instrument in music, the Hammond B3. They played a great short set of traditional jazz and a little bit of funk. The stage was lit with three blue lights leaving the room spattered in pale azure; reminding us that this was Chicago and Chicago is cool. At first, the group seemed demure against the backdrop of the larger stage but as each song came and went the trio grew in stature. They locked into some seriously nice grooves thanks in large part to guitarist Bobby Broom and the band as a whole set the stage for what was to come.
Since LMB posted the Steely Dan tour announcement there has been a huge amount of feedback from fans of the band commenting on the shows that they have seen and their experiences. Its awesome to have such a response from the readers for a band that I really love and I consider this my contribution to that conversation. Most of the comments have been exactly how I expect enthusiasts of Steely Dan to respond but some have been superficial in nature. Being upset because they didn’t play all of their chart toppers — or what you consider to be the songs they should play — is something to which I must respond.
Steely Dan is a rare band that has extraordinary depth of quality in their catalogue. That means you may not catch all your favorites but the ones you do hear turn you in a new direction that you never knew was there, a part of the band that before the night never existed. Its a learning experience. Eric Harvey said it best when he commented in a column for Pitchfork, “I’d earned my appreciation for Steely Dan.” Amen, sir. Okay, I feel better now; back to the review.
This being the second Chicago date on the tour I’m sure they tried to get in a lot of songs they felt they may have missed back in July. This meant quite a few hits but also some hidden gems that brought a wide smile to my friend’s face — Russ is a connoisseur of the Dan. The band — minus Fagen and Becker — took the stage first and went into a instrumental intro that has become somewhat of the norm on this tours. They played short instrumental versions of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “The Fez” but with an interesting bass line that resembled “On Broadway”, which was a really cool touch. Then the duo came out to a standing ovation and started immediately into “The Royal Scam”.
I considered it an interesting opener yet the beginning of the show was marked with a number of darker, more mellow songs and “The Royal Scam” certainly fed the beast. The staccato piano was a nice introductory sound and played a foil to Fagen’s voice throughout the song. Though this may be a song that is known more with the versed fans it served as a really solid opener, making the statement that we were here to see them, they weren’t here to play for us.
From there the band jumped into “I Got the News” which lacked that special something and that was Michael McDonald’s backup vocals. Probably the only average tune on Aja, it still played well with the early theme of the show. Then two songs from Countdown to Ecstasy began to draw in more of the crowd. “Show Biz Kids” gave the female backup singers opportunity to show off some of their chops and then the Dan dropped “Bodhisattva” on everyone. This snapped any fair-weather fan out of indifference and got a lot of middle-aged men and women shaking what the good lord gave them. The group rocked the song out, especially Keith Carlock who continuously impressed throughout on the drum set.
A real surprise track mid-set was “Aja”, which is one of the Dan’s lengthiest and most ambitious tunes. I imagine it as a song that may have shown up on Fagen and Becker’s version of “South Pacific” or if Rogers and Hammerstein were actually cool. The sonic attention, much like “Royal Scam”, is focused through the use of a staccato riff that works down the scale. The live version made me love the song more now that I’ve heard it that way. A total of four song were featured from Aja with “Josie” and the ever wonderful “Peg” rounding out the quartet.
The middle of the almost two hour set was the strongest part of the show personally. Steely Dan delved into some solo territory when they played Fagen’s “New Frontier” from his seminal album Nightfly. The synth skips through the song adding a lighter mood to combat Fagen’s wry voice. This album is as underrated and unknown as masterpieces come and if you haven’t checked it out, do so. Soon after, Becker got his shot on vocals during “Gaucho”, which made the song very different from when Fagen sings it on the album.
The later half of the set was certainly dominated by the hits and with about five or six songs left the crowd never sat down again. One of the highlights was a rousing “Kid Charlemange” which holds new weight in Chicago now that Kanye West sampled the song for his own “Champion”. Steely Dan is one of the most heavily sampled groups for a reason, they’re music is intricate and crosses genres. The clavinet in the background alone with the base line could suffice as a a song for most groups but not Steely Dan, they need much more. The vocal line “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car,” really got the crowd to a peak in energy.
The main set was followed by a really nice two song encore featuring “F.M.” and “My Old School”, which were a great end to the show. The crowd seemed genuinely pleased with the quality and song selection of the set. I was surprised with how many hits they tackled and can’t imagine how anyone would come away wondering why they didn’t play this or that. The show was a great exclamation point for this part of my summer and I hope these tours become a regular thing for the Dan. The stage production, sound and the band itself all emulated professionalism during the two hours. Thanks to Ken Gilbertsen for the great photos, my buddy Russ for the ticket and of course Steely Dan for the music.
For more of Ken’s great photos from the Steely Dan show and elsewhere click here.